Plague Spreading Rapidly in Madagascar

The World Health Organization warns a highly infectious, deadly form of pneumonic plague is spreading rapidly in Madagascar and quick action is needed to stop it. 

Pneumonic plague, which is transmitted from person to person, has been detected in several cities in Madagascar.  This worries the World Health Organization as the disease is highly contagious and quickly causes death without treatment.

Plague is endemic to Madagascar resulting in around 400 cases annually.  Most are cases of bubonic plague, which is spread by the fleas of rats and other small rodents.  The disease is usually confined to rural areas, but this year it has spread to large urban areas and port cities.

WHO spokesman, Tarik Jasarevic, says cases of bubonic, as well as the human transmissible pneumonic plague have been found in the capital Antananarivo and the port cities of Majunga and Toamasina.

“So far, 104 cases of plague were reported since the first case has been identified that was dating from the 23rd of August,” said Jasarevic. “So, from the 23rd of August to 28th September, 104 cases that have been reported, including 20 deaths.”

Jasarevic notes the fatality rate is more than 19 percent.  He tells VOA this outbreak is very dangerous and must be brought under control quickly.

“The plague epidemic season usually runs from September to April, so we really are at the beginning of the epidemic season of plague,” said Jasarevic. “And, we have already from the 23rd of August until yesterday—so that is like five-weeks-time—we had 104 cases and again half of those cases were pneumonic plague.”

WHO says urgent public health response in terms of surveillance and treatment is required.  The health agency has released $250,000 from its emergency fund to get immediate action underway.  It plans to appeal for $1.5 million to fully respond to the needs.

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China Manufacturing Expands at Fastest Pace in 5 Years

An official survey released Saturday said that China’s factory activity expanded in September at the fastest pace in five years, as the country’s vital manufacturing sector stepped up production to meet strong demand.

The official manufacturing purchasing managers’ index rose to 52.4 in September, up from 51.7 in the previous month and the highest level since April 2012.

The report by the Federation of Logistics & Purchasing said production, new export orders and overall new orders grew at a faster pace for the month.

“The manufacturing sector continues to maintain a steady development trend and the pace is accelerating,” said Zhao Qinghe, senior statistician at the National Bureau of Statistics, which released the data. Zhao noted that the report found both domestic and global demand have improved.

However, in a separate report, the private Caixin/Markit manufacturing PMI slipped to 51.0 from 51.6, as factories reported that production and new orders expanded at slower rates last month.

Both indexes are based on a 100-point scale with 50 dividing expansion from contraction. But the federation’s report is focused more on large, state-owned enterprises while the Caixin survey is weighted to smaller, private companies.

Another official index covering non-manufacturing activity rebounded after two months of contraction, rising to 55.4 last month from 53.4 in August. That indicates momentum is picking up again in China’s service sector.

The reports come ahead of the ruling Communist Party’s twice-a-decade congress set for next month, where top leaders will be reshuffled and authorities will outline economic policies.

Earlier this month, rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded China’s credit rating on government borrowing, citing rising debt levels that raise financial risks and could drag on economic growth.

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Smart Windows Let Heat in During Winter, Keep It Out During Summer

Solar power is definitely the wave of the future. But in the future instead of a roof covered with solar panels, your own windows might not only be collecting power from the sun, but also helping your house conserve energy. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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Untangling US Tax System

Nearly all U.S. taxpayers say American tax law, which runs tens of thousands of pages, is an incredibly complicated, annoying mess. And there is no agreement on how to fix the problem. Republicans recently outlined a new effort they say will be clearer, fairer and helpful to the economy. Critics say the Republican plan would cut taxes for the rich and increase the U.S. debt. VOA’s Jim Randle looks at how the system is supposed to work, and what critics say is wrong.

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Unintended Social Consequences Catching up to Facebook

Years of limited oversight and unchecked growth have turned Facebook into a force with incredible power over the lives of its 2 billion users. But the social network has also given rise to unintended social consequences, and they’re starting to catch up with it:

House and Senate panels investigating Russian interference in the 2016 elections have invited Facebook, along with Google and Twitter, to testify this fall. Facebook just agreed to give congressional investigators 3,000 political ads purchased by Russian-backed entities, and announced new disclosure policies for political advertising
Facebook belatedly acknowledged its role purveying false news to its users during the 2016 campaign and announced new measures to curb it. Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg even apologized, more than 10 months after the fact, for calling the idea that Facebook might have influenced the election “pretty crazy.”
The company has taken flack for a live video feature that was quickly used to broadcast violent crime and suicides; for removing an iconic Vietnam War photo for “child pornography” and then backtracking; and for allegedly putting its thumb on a feature that ranked trending news stories.

Facebook is behind the curve in understanding that “what happens in their system has profound consequences in the real world,” said Fordham University media-studies professor Paul Levinson. The company’s knee-jerk response has often been “none of your business” when confronted about these consequences, he said.

Moving fast, still breaking things

That response may not work much longer for a company whose original but now-abandoned slogan — “move fast and break things” — sometimes still seems to govern it.

Facebook has, so far, enjoyed seemingly unstoppable growth in users, revenue and its stock price. Along the way, it has also pushed new features on to users even when they protested, targeted ads at them based on a plethora of carefully collected personal details, and engaged in behavioral experiments that seek to influence their mood.

“There’s a general arrogance — they know what’s right, they know what’s best, we know how to make better for you so just let us do it,” said Notre Dame business professor Timothy Carone, who added that this is true of Silicon Valley giants in general. “They need to take a step down and acknowledge that they really don’t have all the answers.”

Hands-off Facebook

Facebook generally points to the fact that its policies prohibit misuse of its platform, and that it is difficult to catch everyone who tries to abuse its platform. When pressed, it tends to acknowledge some problems, offer a few narrowly tailored fixesand move on.

But there is a larger question, which is whether Facebook has taken sufficient care to build policies and systems that are resistant to abuse.

Facebook declined to address the subject on the record, although it pointed to earlier public statements in which Zuckerberg described how he wants Facebook to be a force for good in the world. The company also recently launched a blog called “Hard Questions” that attempts to address its governance issues in more depth.

But Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s No. 2 executive, offered an unexpected perspective on this question in a recent apology. Facebook “never intended or anticipated” how people could use its automated advertising to target ads at users who expressed anti-Semitic views. That, she wrote, “is on us. And we did not find it ourselves — and that is also on us.”

As a result, she said the company will tighten its ad policies to ensure such abuses don’t happen again.

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Travel by Rocket From New York to Tokyo in 30 Minutes?

U.S. billionaire innovator Elon Musk has unveiled plans for a new rocket that would allow passengers to travel from one continent to another in about 30 minutes.

At a presentation Friday in Adelaide, Australia, Musk showed a video of images of a rocket taking off in New York and landing in various places around the world, including Tokyo and Shanghai.

He said the New York-Shanghai trip could be done in 39 minutes, while a trip from Bangkok to Dubai would take 27 minutes and Tokyo to Delhi would be 30 minutes.

He added that the cost per seat should be about the same as full fare economy in an aircraft.

Musk noted there is no weather outside the Earth’s atmosphere to interfere with travel times and said that once you are beyond the atmosphere, “it would be as smooth as silk, no turbulence, nothing.”

“If we are building this thing to go to the moon and Mars, then why not go to other places on Earth as well?” Musk said.

Musk, who founded and runs the company SpaceX along with the electric luxury car company Tesla, has long been making plans for rockets to travel to Mars.

Musk said SpaceX plans its first trip to Mars in 2022, carrying only cargo with a key mission to find the best source of water on the Red Planet. That mission would be followed by the first manned mission in 2024. He said the company was aiming to start construction on the first spaceship in the next six to nine months.

Musk said space flights to enable people to travel from one continent to another could help to pay for future missions to Mars.

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IMF Chief tells Central Bankers to not Dismiss Bitcoin

Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, has a message for the world’s central bankers: Don’t be Luddites.

Addressing a conference in London on Friday, Lagarde said virtual currencies, which are created and exchanged without the involvement of banks or government, could in time be embraced by countries with unstable currencies or weak domestic institutions.

“In many ways, virtual currencies might just give existing currencies and monetary policy a run for their money,” she said. “The best response by central bankers is to continue running effective monetary policy, while being open to fresh ideas and new demands, as economies evolve.”

The most high-profile of these digital currencies is bitcoin, which like others can be converted to cash when deposited into accounts at prices set in online trading. Its price has been volatile, soaring over recent years but falling sharply earlier this month on reports that China will order all bitcoin exchanges to close and one of the world’s most high-profile investment bankers said bitcoin was a fraud.

For now, Lagarde said, digital currencies are unlikely to replace traditional ones, as they are “too volatile, too risky, too energy intensive and because the underlying technologies are not yet scalable.”

High-profile hacks have also not helped, she noted. One notable failure was that of the Mt. Gox exchange in Japan in February 2014, in which about 850,000 bitcoins were lost, possibly to hackers. Following that, Japan enacted new laws to regulate bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies.

But in time, she argued, technological innovations could address some of the issues that have kept a lid on the appeal of digital currencies.

“Not so long ago, some experts argued that personal computers would never be adopted, and that tablets would only be used as expensive coffee trays, so I think it may not be wise to dismiss virtual currencies,” Lagarde said.

Lagarde’s comments appear at odds with the views of JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who this month described bitcoin as a fraud and said he’d fire any of his traders if they caught dealing in the digital currency.

In a speech laying out the potential changes wrought by financial innovations, Lagarde also said that over the next generation, “machines will almost certainly play a larger role” in helping policymakers, offering real-time forecasts, spotting bubbles, and uncovering complex financial linkages.

“As one of your fellow Londoners – Mary Poppins – might have said: bring along a pinch of imagination!”

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Kenyans Cycle Toward Healthier Hearts

Cardiovascular disease is a growing health concern in Kenya and around Africa. In Nairobi, 100 motorcycle taxi drivers are riding stationary bicycles and being trained to provide emergency resuscitation using automatic electronic defibrillators. It’s all part of an ongoing campaign to raise awareness about heart health in Kenya. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.

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Researchers Seek Cheaper, Energy-efficient Ways of Producing Clean Water

Having enough clean drinking water has been a challenge in many parts of the world, whether it’s a place where water is scarce or abundant. The World Health Organization finds 3 in 10 people globally still lack safe drinking water at home.

The U.S. Department of Energy has just announced it is providing up to $15 million in funding for projects to develop solar desalination technology to create freshwater at a lower cost. Even before the announcement, researchers had been working on better ways to desalinate water.

“We can take any quality of water that we’re starting with and we can turn it into any quality of water that we desire at the end, and the only real challenge or limitation has to be overcome is how much does it cost and how much energy does it take to go from here to here,” said Eric Hoek, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Water Planet Inc.

Cheaper energy

Water treatment plants are largely driven by electricity. A cheaper source of energy is the sun.

“What’s changed in the last five to 10 years, solar has gotten cheap,” Hoek said.

“The only reason that that has not taken over the world at this point is that it’s still intermittent. The sun goes up and it comes down. You have power when it’s up and don’t when it’s down. What you need to make that a continuous base load is you need batteries, which you can charge up during the day, discharge at night, and the cost of batteries is still currently pretty high.”

Household system

Qilin Li at Rice University is building a desalination system that uses solar energy with broad drinking water applications for “individual households or small communities that live in remote locations, especially those who don’t have access to municipal water supply, don’t have a stable supply of electricity. This technology can be an ideal technology,” Li said.

Her solar-powered desalination system can “also benefit megacities in developing countries that don’t have the extensive water and power infrastructure we enjoy here in developed countries, and that kind of relief perhaps in not providing all the water for the whole city, but can relieve some of their need or dependency on the power grid,” Li said.

The goal of Li’s system is to make it modular and cost efficient so it could either meet the needs of a small household or a large community.

Li and her team created a reactor to distill water using heat from the sun. Water turns into vapor, goes through a porous membrane and becomes pure water. Li says a low cost coating on the membrane developed at Rice University makes this unique.

“So it (membrane) harvests the sunlight, converts the photon energy in the sunlight to heat highly efficiently to generate water vapor, and it also serves a separation function to keep the contaminants on the dirty side of the membrane and only allow pure water vapor to go through,” Li said.

Waste heat

The sun is not the only low cost source of energy. Amy Childress’ lab at the University of Southern California (USC) looks at how waste heat that comes from manufacturing can be used as a resource.

“With waste heat you’re going to have cycles and spikes. We’ve gone out to the field, measured waste heat at an industrial site. We come back. We plug that into our system, so that we can repeat that waste heat curve over and over and watch the response of membranes to the waste heat,” said Childress, who directs USC’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department’s environmental engineering program.

Her lab looks at how waste heat would impact the longevity and properties of a membrane.

Childress says the work in her lab will be helpful in the development of better membranes.

Filters in demand

There is high demand for membranes that help produce clean water. Water Planet’s PolyCera® membrane used to treat wastewater, is finding broader applications.

“We have a lot of interest now around the world, not just in industrial wastewater, but we’re actually making point-of-use under-the-sink water filters for applications in India, in China and here in the U.S. We’re making membranes that are being tested now for deployment offshore in sea water desalination to produce drinking water in barges and in platforms,” Hoek said.

With nearly 30 percent of the world’s population lacking safe drinking water at home, researchers will continue to work on harnessing free energy to clean water.

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Search for Cheaper, Energy-efficient Ways of Creating Clean Water

Having enough clean drinking water has been a challenge in many parts of the world, whether it is a place where water is scarce or abundant. The U.S. Department of Energy has just announced it is providing $15 million in funding for projects to develop solar desalination technology at a lower cost. But even before this announcement, researchers had been working on better ways of desalinating water. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee has the details.

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